27 July 2016


Charmless house....
From Normandy we return to Paris to give up our Eurolease car, then fly to Glasgow. Two of my Scottish ancestors come from the area, one from Greenock, and the other from Paisley Road in Glasgow (on the south side of the Clyde). We stay in a self-catering house in between, in Port Greenock. It is a classic example of dreary English domestic architecture, but it has a kitchen and a washing machine, a splendid view and foxes in the back garden.
... with great view.
Our first day there is a Sunday, and we courageously drive into Glasgow. For the next two days we take the more relaxing option of driving to the nearby station and catching the train - about a half hour journey in comfort and no parking issues at the other end.
It rains every day of our stay, not all the time, but most of the time and we see very little sun or blue sky. This doesn't really matter as Glasgow is full of splendid museums, all of them free. We go to the Kelvingrove, Transport Museum, GoMA, Mackintosh House, Hunterian, Kelvingrove again. We still do quite a lot of walking, but also catch buses. Glasgow's underground is under repairs, so is currently replaced by a bus service, which is great for us as we get to see more of the city as we go from museum to museum.

Food is less interesting and more expensive than meals we've been enjoying on the continent. We eat at the house a couple of times, rather than staying in town. Like many port cities, Glasgow has experienced much cultural cross-fertilisation. We find that we can buy haggis pizza in the local Tesco supermarket, but decide against. But we did eat haggis fritters at a local Indian restaurant.
Glasgow is billed as the best place to shop after London, but we found it disappointing. The shopping streets are gracious and elegant, but the shops are all international chains selling stuff you could buy anywhere. Finally manage to find something Scottish in one of the museum shops - a Mackintosh design scarf ring, so that P has a gift for me on my fast-approaching birthday.
We leave Scotland on 27 July, and take the pretty route through Greenock and down the coast of the Inverclyde. The weather has at last improved, and we enjoy the scenery and the change from motorway driving, although eventually we join the A1(M) and use it to get to our next destination, Goldsborough in Yorkshire.
More pictures.

22 July 2016

Back in France: Bayeux and the Normandy beaches

We spend three days and four nights staying in a lovely old B&B called Chateau de Damigny. Mine host copes gracefully with my having got the booking dates wrong - uncomplainingly moves us from room to room so we get to see about half the available rooms, all charming.
We spend time walking in the countryside round the chateau, in Bayeux itself, at the Normandy Beaches and at Caen. One becomes acutely aware of the dangers of living in a place that is a crossroads, or an entry/exit point for a continent. Here Harold of England came to talk to the French, only to be captured and have to seek help and a ransom from William the Bastard of Normandy. The same William set sail from here to become William the Conqueror by beating Harold at Hastings (brilliantly and movingly recorded in the famous Bayeux Tapestry). The Normandy beaches were chosen by the Allies as the place to start the invasion of Europe which would eventually culminate in the defeat of Hitler's Germany. Before they landed on the beaches, they bombed Caen, killing thousands of civilians, most of them innocent of anything other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many troops died in the landings and subsequent battles, but they at least knew what they were in for.
Arromanches, showing remains of Mulberry Harbour
At Arromanches we experience a documentary summary of the invasion and the time before and after, projected in a 360 degree cinema using archival footage from the time. It has a terrific impact, so moving that P is in tears at the end. Then we walk out into a perfect, sunny July day, and watch the French at the seaside, disporting themselves amongst the remaining caissons from the Mulberry Harbour, built by the Allies in a few days to provide a landing point for D-day. Back in Caen, you can see the ruins of William the Conqueror's castle, very strategically placed, and see all the new buildings that replaced the rubble left by the Allied bombings. War and peace. The cycle just keeps on going, whether its 1066 or 1944.
En route to Arromanches we experienced a traffic hold-up caused by some optimists trying to get a large truck, towing not one but two trailers, around a 120 degree bend in a tiny French village. It required the help of a tow truck and the decoupling of both trailers to get around the corner, providing the local inhabitants and us with entertainment for about half an hour.
From Normandy we drive to Paris to return our Eurolease Renault, stopping on the way at Rouen (lovely town, mediaeval streets, fine cathedral rebuilt after wartime destruction). More pictures, including nice ones of Rouen here.

19 July 2016

Belgium - in passing

Our barge trip in Holland is preceded and followed by a week in France. Which means we travel through Belgium, twice.
Northbound from Reims we make an overnight stop to break the journey, staying in a very pleasant hotel east of Liege.
Southbound we make a longer stop in Bruges, which has been on my bucket list ever since I did a school project on the city. I'm pleased to find it as captivating as I hoped, very mediaeval, lovely vistas down the canals, splendidly ornate buildings. Our hotel is genuinely old, exposed beams in the bedroom, some just above the bed on which past occupants have carved initials. As usual we do much walking, giving our feet a break by catching a tourist bus which provides an overview of the city and an amazing demonstration of driving skills in the narrow streets and tight corners, not to mention dodging horse and carriage combos, another popular means of tourist transport. Food is good, if rather more expensive than in Holland, but that could be just because Bruges is a top tourist destination. We get good advice about restaurants from the concierge at the hotel, who gets full marks for helpfulness, Despite the crowds in the main square and tourist souvenir streets, we find quiet places to walk and a couple of museums that aren't full of people. We see a very interesting Picasso exhibition at St John Hospital, and Flemish Primitives at the Groenigen. For once we don't feel impelled to get on the water, partly because the tourist boats all seem very crowded, and partly because we've just had our fill of canals in Holland. After two evenings and one full day we are happy to move on to France.
More pictures here.

17 July 2016

Barging about in Holland Part 2

We make our return trip through Amsterdam early on Sunday morning, a good choice as it was quiet and relatively free of traffic. Seems the Dutch still take Sundays seriously, at least in the morning - when we reach Weesp the streets and cafes stay empty until the afternoon.
From Weesp our itinerary is Sunday night in a countryside stop, 2 nights in the charming small town of Breukelen, after which our penichette is named, 2 nights in Utrecht, then Friday night back in the base at Loosdrecht, ready to give the boat back on Saturday morning.
Highspots of Part 2

  • seeing a bunch of Dutch teenagers returning from a sailing and camping weekend in small steel-hulled yachts, 4-5m. They are gaff-rigged, with masts that can be dropped. When we first see them they are being towed, daisy-chained behind a motor boat, then we watch enviously as the kids use a single long oar to scull them expertly into their mooring spots, alongside us.
  • Breukelen, where we have a lovely country walk, then a bit of a rest day because it is raining, and find two restaurants where we have very good food.
  • Utrecht, where we enjoy more city walks, an archeological tour under the cathedral where ruins date back to Roman conquest, but also includes fragments of the nave of the huge gothic cathedral, destroyed by a massive storm in 1674, never rebuilt. Apse and transepts remain as does the tower from the West end, with a cobbled square between
  • Speelklok Museum in Utrecht, filled with every imaginable mechanical music making device, from huge fairground organs to tiny music boxes, from Nickelodeons with circular metal disks to a Steinway player piano. Most amazing is a mechanical violin, extraordinarily ingenious construction involving 3 instruments each with only one string, and a circular bow rotating round all three. There is also a "woven music" display where a punched cardboard music "book" has been turned into cards for a Jacquard loom, then used to weave  a scarf. We stay until museum closes, fascinated.
  • getting back to the Locoboat base and finding that they are very nice about the minor damage we did by clipping another boat in a very tricky un-mooring situation, and that the cost is covered by insurance in the "inclusive package".
  • another serendipitous happening when we decide to break our trip from Holland back to France in a little village called Tholen, which just happens to be celebrating its 650th anniversary. And to Peter's delight, the town also has a working windmill. To see the windmill in motion and the amazing parade, click here.
Observations of Holland
- Sounds

Every town, large or small, has a carillon, and they ring out at least ever hour, sometimes on the quarters, playing tunes not always sounding particularly musical, but sometimes familiar (eg Fur Elise)
- Smells
Linden trees in flower, petunias, and a truly rural pong from the countryside, presumably silage, like a very powerful cheese
- Boats and bicycles
Dutch must start using both as soon as they can walk. Boats of all sizes skilfully manoeuvred everywhere. Bicycles ridden rapidly and vigorously in all weathers by people of all ages, some looking quite a bit older than us. Cycles range from rusty black treadlies to more modern numbers, but still mostly black. No one seems to bother with gears, it's so flat. They can and do dodge anything at a moment's notice, from other bikes to hapless tourists looking the wrong way when crossing roads. They often ride one-handed with the other hand used for a variety of purposes: talking on mobile, smoking, eating an ice-cream, nursing a child, holding a shopping bag, holding hands with another cyclist. The ultimate was an entire brass band playing while cycling.

- Gardens and flowers
In the height of summer, so everything is in full bloom. As in France gardens are well-tended, but where French gardens have a touch of careless rapture, Dutch gardens are generally clipped and mown within an inch.
Hydrangeas are big, in two senses, ubiquitous and huge, whole banks of plants canal-side, in colours from white through deep pink to blue and mauve.
Also as in France, all towns have hanging baskets and planters on all pillars and posts. Petunias are the municipal planting of choice, sometimes interspersed with geraniums. Whole towns are colour keyed, in Weesp the petunias were purple and white, in Amsterdam pink and white, in Utrecht all shades of pink.

- Houses
As in France, Dutch architecture is consistent - new houses echo the shapes of the past, stepped gables and steep roofs. Privacy is clearly unimportant, houses fronting right on the street generally have no blinds or curtains, and you can see through the immaculately clean windows into their living rooms, often right through open plan rooms to a well-kept garden at the back.  Houses built on floating platforms on the canals were equally open to view as we motored past.
- People
The French are mostly slim, the Dutch are lean and tanned (must be all that cycling). Older women are grey-haired, not dyed. You get a strong impression of organisation and efficiency. We found people extremely friendly and helpful. Language difficulties minimal as nearly everyone speaks English. The young are fluent and almost without an accent. We do find ourselves using sign language with a very sweet lady in her 80s, as we sat in a cafe in Monnickendam. She is joined by a slightly younger male friend and her granddaughter is waitressing, and they both help us out by translating. The friend slips away and returns with a little box containing Delft salt and pepper shakers in the shape of windmills, complete with moving sails. We buy a small pack of chocolates for grandma in return, and by the time we finish our coffee and appeltaart (to which Peter has become addicted), we are practically part of the family and I get a kiss on both cheeks from grandma as we say goodbye.
In summary
We really enjoyed Holland. Peter is not sure he would choose to go on the canals again as the amount of traffic and the frequent bridges mean that you need to be constantly alert while in motion, so not as relaxing as our previous French trips.
For the full photo album, with more boats, birds, bicycles and a spectacular sunset, click here.

10 July 2016

Barging about in Holland Part 1

Amsterdam and the North
When planning this trip I had the occasional misgivings about our choice of Holland for the canal experience, thinking it might be boring - endless flat fields relieved only by the occasional windmill - and I would wish we had gone to Brittany instead. But not so, we are having a great time.

It is of course dead flat, which means very few locks, compared to France. Instead the excitement is provided by bridges, many too low even for our small boat so one has to tie up and wait for one of a variety of lifting mechanisms to operate. Then if there is no one coming the other way, off you go.
There is a lot of traffic. Unsurprisingly, in a waterlogged country, there are hundreds of thousands of boats, and in summer they are all out being sailed, rowed, or motored. We have dodged everything from people on paddle boards to vast barges over 100m long. There are tiny harbours or mooring places along the canal sides in every town, but it can be hard to find a parking spot. And although we have travelled along lengths of canal with only polders on either side, much of the time there are houses on at least one side of the canal, some of them floating on the canal.
Our itinerary to date:
We started from the canal base in Loosdrecht, went North to Weesp, then to Amsterdam where we spent 2 days and nights, further north to Alkmaar, then back to Amsterdam via Edam, Vollendam, Monnickendam and Broek in Waterland. We've taken more time than allowed for in our schedule, so instead of proceeding on a southern loop through Gouda, we are retracing our path toward Loosdrecht. From there we will just go on to Utrecht, then return to base next Friday.
XXL Barge to be avoided in the Nordsee Canal
  • Seeing Amsterdam from the canals, both in our barge and in the hop-on hop-off "canal bus". People braver than us navigate them in pedaloes, which are called canal bikes
  • Doing the above without colliding with the dozens of tourist boats, and getting across the Nordsee Canal without getting run down
  • Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum
  • NEMO, Amsterdam's equivalent of Scienceworks, where we happily spent most of a day. Big emphasis on energy conservation and renewables.
  • Watching bottes manoeuvring in Monnickendam. We saw these big traditional wooden sailing boats coming back into the tiny harbour after a regatta, and were amazed to see them spin through 180 degrees before mooring or rafting up. See the video for this one.
  • A museum in Edam, an old house furnished in the style of a couple of hundred years back, which had a floating cellar, an open brick box that you climbed down into, and where you could see the water level over the sides, less than a metre down.
  • Witnessing two weddings, a high school graduation, and an a capella choir competition, all of which we just happened on. Very strange hearing Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" sung in Dutch.
  • Birds. The canals are a twitcher's paradise. Even ignoramuses like us can identify several sorts of duck, geese (ordinary, Egyptian and Canada), swan, moorhen, grebes, heron, assorted gulls. Lots of gorgeous fluffy young being shepherded by anxious parent birds.
Bottes in Monnickendam Harbour
We enjoyed the contrast between Amsterdam and the more mediaeval towns of Edam, Alkmaar and Monnickendam. We've walked and walked in all of them.
Floating bike park, jam-packed...

The barge hire people, whom Peter described as a mine of misinformation, were negative about their capital - full of Muslims, rapists and bicycle thieves (categories possibly overlapping). We were told not to take our hired bikes in, as even if locked, they would be stolen in one minute. Hard to believe once you've been there that there is anyone in Amsterdam that doesn't already have a bicycle. There are 9,500 bikes parked around Central Station every day - God only knows how people remember where they put theirs. There are dedicated bicycle parks jam-packed with bikes. And everywhere you go there are bicycles whizzing past. On our boat trip we were told that the saying about Amsterdam's canals is that they are one third water, one third mud, and one third bicycles.
...and there's more.

More observations about boats, bicycles and Holland in general to follow in Part 2.

01 July 2016

Burgundy, Champagne, and Geneva for lunch

Le Vieux Chateau
No, I didn't get that round the wrong way - it's where we've been, not what we've been drinking.
Our first week is spent in France, with a quick crossing into Geneva to visit friends Ben and Cam, now living and working there. We travel rather more than is our custom, with only one two-night stay in Dijon. Our little Eurodrive Renault Captur is great, and churns through the kms with amazing economy. Itinerary: Paris, Maçon, Geneva, Dijon, Reims, Liège (Belgium).

High spots of our week:

  • having the first croissant and espresse breakfast, even if it is in the shuttle station near the Ibis Hotel at Charles de Gaulle airport. And then similar breakfasts all week but in better surroundings
  • staying in Le Vieux Chateau, which is just that, on a hilltop overlooking vineyards in the Maçon area. Our chambre d'hôte is on two levels - the bed upstairs is in an alcove, rather like sleeping on Nahani. And there is a very friendly cat. We vow to return one day for a longer stay.
  • sunshine and warmth after wintry Melbourne. It is low to mid-twenties, perfect for city strolling
  • lunching with Ben and Cam, talking music and politics, and the politics of international music
Paddle steamer on Lake Leman, Geneva

  • zipping back and forth on Lake Leman in Geneva via mouette, little ferries that are part of their public transport system
  • crossing the Jura, on some very Tour de France roads. I enjoy this more than Peter, who is doing the driving and therefore can't look at the view much
  • eating French food, best meal so far at Pourquoi Pas? in Dijon
  • staying in a converted monastery in Dijon, another mezzanine room with bed upstairs
  • Dijon Carousel
  • serendipitous moments in Dijon:

  1. in the cathedral, woman in her sixties goes and stands directly under the crossing of nave and transept, sings the Bach Gounod Ave Maria unaccompanied, pitch perfect, beautifully expressive, with a second Amen pitched for maximum echo. Stunned tourists like us wanting to applaud at the end, but would not have been right. Singer rejoins husband and goes on walking round cathedral
  2. as we walk across one of the squares in Dijon, we stop because some people are doing something odd with a half constructed barrel and some bits of wood. We ask what is going on, helpful person explains that in France they award gold medals to the no 1 master in various creative arts and crafts. This is a meeting of all of them (almost every neck we can see has a tricolour ribbon and medal) to honour one woman who is France's no 1 flower arranger (she recently spent 8 days in Dubai doing flowers for some prince's wedding). We watch as a figure is constructed with the barrel as a skirt (staves open at the bottom) wooden legs and feet, a steel mesh torso, tubular steel arms, steel frame head and beaten metal hat. The florist and assistant then decorate hat and body with flowers until "Caroline" is complete. By then the charming woman who has explained the whole proceedings has to go, and we have had enough of standing in the sun, so we don't wait to see "her" carried off in triumph

  • finding that Reims Cathedral still gives me goosebumps and that Peter thinks it amazing too (he hasn't been before). Admiring wonderful new stained glass by a German artist, complements the Chagall window beautifully.
Low spots
  • accidental abandonment of clothing, pajamas in Paris (his), shirt in Dijon (hers)
  • accidental laundering of passport (his), retrieved before too wet and dried out successfully
  • accidental acquisition of key to Belgian hotel - will have to post back
  • finding Satnav not as good as Google maps - being led up windy narrow roads all around the vineyards, and being badly misdirected on to the wrong motorway where there has been recent road rearrangement. Takes a tense 20 mins getting back on course.
  • paying 32 Swiss francs (more than $50) for parking behind Hotel in Geneva, when there was a public car park 50m down the road. Somewhat compensated by getting free parking in Dijon as payment machine was out of order and we were let out gratis by a disembodied voice, after 15 mins of struggle with machine and search for an attendant.
General impressions
We love the look of France, green fields, little bosky woods, consistent architecture, buildings ageing but still attractive, people with style. Hotel standards have gone up and we were getting last minute bookings for €88 for really good accommodation.
We have walked and walked, length of Geneva on both sides of the lake, from red light district to posh shopping, round and round Dijon following Parcours de la Chouette - little brass arrows with a owl on that guide you round all the points of interest. And all round Reims, more spacious, less mediaeval (probably because of wartime bombing) and to us less charming. Passers by not as charming, and some were seriously fat, which we hadn't seen in Dijon.
But overall, le ciel et bleu, les bois sont verts, et la vie est en rose.

More pictures